On seven previous discs and in delightful live performances, Helen Sung has earned her thoroughly modern place in the lineage of pianists that dates to such post-bop greats as Red Garland and Wynton Kelly: musicians equally at home in trio or quintet settings, who swing without trying and who convey richly expressive solos without resorting to histrionics.
On Sung with Words, she embraces another lineage rooted in the 1950s by combining her music with poetry. The first two tracks outline the album’s discrete components. Like all the poems, “Meet Me at the Lighthouse” — a short remembrance of the 1970s — is spoken by its author, the oft-awarded Dana Gioia, whose poetry has engaged composers from Dave Brubeck to Ned Rorem; the subsequent instrumental, a hard blues called “Convergence,” neatly channels the ’60s mainstream with bright solos from trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and reedist John Ellis. Sung with Words proceeds to smartly intermingle these spoken-word and instrumental components. Some of the instrumentals, like “Convergence,” reflect upon the poems that precede them, while a florescent ballad, “The Stars of Second Avenue,” turns Gioia’s words directly into lyrics for vocalist Jean Baylor. In a few cases — notably “Too Bad,” a “you had your chance” brush-off song sung by Christie Dashiell and Carolyn Leonhart — Gioia’s reading serves as an intro to the song of the same name.
Sung and Gioia have naturally emphasized poems that lend themselves to lyrics, and some — those with the most transparent rhyme schemes — prove more successful as songs than readings. Much credit goes to Sung’s ever-evolving compositional skills. Even on those poems that stand perfectly well alone, her melodies and arrangements weave true collaborative magic. The second half of the 16-track disc focuses more on her instrumentals, but these breathe the same atmosphere established by the co-written pieces. This collection might have been either a well-written album or a short collection of poems; the synergy results in a volume more varied and rewarding than either on its own. —Neil Tesser